Organizing Successful Farm Cooperatives

posted in: News | 0

By Margaret Campos

For those of you fortunate enough to have attended the Agricultura Aqui y Alla event held in Rio Arriba county back in early February, you may have had the opportunity to hear a very inspiring presentation by Anthony Flaccavento who spoke of the recent successes of sustainable agriculture in the Appalachian region (in Virginia and Tenessee). He credited much of the success to the establishment of a strong Grower's Network. Mainly, he addressed the benefits (profitability, increased local food security, building community, etc.) of working cooperatively to sell aggregated product to larger markets. In short, his message was "together we stand stronger". Not only can farmers working together develop larger and stronger markets, but working cooperatively can gain farmers immediate savings when it comes to procuring goods and services.

But with all of the many good reasons to organize and operate cooperatively, cooperatives in Northern New Mexico have historically poor longevity records. Why is it that for hundreds of years our ancestors survived this desolate region by helping each other out, yet when it comes to organizing and operating producer cooperatives, we have failed nine times out of ten? You have to look at the failures of the past so as not to repeat them in the future, correct?

So as I sit down to share my thoughts on cooperatives, it is not the words of USDA, or successes of the human kind that inspire me; it is the memory of the first day of spring, this past 21st of March. The weather had been very pleasant those days, and I often found myself sitting on the rocker on the front porch enjoying the first daffodils, but this day was different. This day I had company, my comadres, las ormigitas (the ants) had made their first showing. Imagine that, how timely they were, I imagined them having tiny calendars and alarms in their den to wake them up. Just how is it that they knew to come out today? Was it coincidence that the ground reached the right temperature on the first day of Spring or should I just accept that they are wiser than I could ever imagine and live in blind admiration?

So as I think back on my comadres on that Spring day, the ants, I think about how organized they are in their work, and how fair and generous they are with their time and themselves, trusting that their strength in numbers is what ensures their survival from year to year, one harsh winter after the next. And it reminded me that by sharing the load, it becomes lighter for all. That when striving to do something one should be prepared, define up front what you want to accomplish, and then prepare for it. Say what you will do, then do what you say. The ants spread out and assess their immediate environment. Once you come to accept the idea or concept, the first step of planning is to assess our environment: what is the market we are attempting to access? Don't forget to look inward as well: what are the strengths and weaknesses of the endeavor? My comadres also reminded me that to be successful, cooperatives must be fair in the treatment of all its members; work and harvest must be shared equitably to be successful. I would imagine that they work to maintain the necessary trust amongst them.

I also noticed that when ants found something to eat, you don't see them waste too much time with a meal. I'm pretty sure they take a bite or two to make sure they are strong enough to support the load, but what you are sure to see is them lining up to carry. Apparently one finds the easiest route, since I've seen them avoid obstacles as they form their line, and they all follow, carrying their share. Not every ants load is the same, some carry tiny little morsels and apparently the big strong ants carry much larger loads; which makes sense – the larger ant probably consumes more, much as a larger farm will have more expenses than a small one. I also remember as a kid, in my mis-spent youth, trying to get them to break up their line, but they must leave a marker or guide for those behind to follow. I also remember those ants attacking me when they thought I was a threat, they all dropped their load to come to the aide of the ants that I'm sure I squashed in my attempt to break them up.

So what I take from my observation of the ants is that we should have a plan or guide to follow so that when disruptions come along to lead us astray we can get back on the path or route we have defined for ourselves. I believe that we should organize, plan and in unity work together to build food security in our communities. It is my belief that the strength of a community can only be as strong as the weakest of its members; cooperatives are a small community of people coming together to organize their efforts toward supporting a greater good. Like Helen Keller said, "Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much."

I you have any questions regarding the organization, management, benefits, challenges and opportunities available to producing and/or marketing cooperatively, please call me at (505) 852-0017 or e-mail me at, I'd be happy to try to answer your questions or point you in the right direction.